A group of immigrants, most wearing fezzes, surrounding a large vessel which is decorated with the star and crescent symbol of the Moslem religion and the Ottoman Turks. Circa 1902-1913. Source: NYPL Digital Collections

On The Outs

Restricting American Immigration
On Thursday, a federal appeals panel unanimously rejected President Trump’s move to reinstate the ban on travel from seven largely Muslim nations into the United States. The restriction, put into effect by executive order on Jan. 27, is commonly believed to be a ban on Muslims. So, on this episode of BackStory, Ed, Brian, and Joanne look back at sweeping immigration restrictions in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how immigrant communities navigated these changing rules.
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ED: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation’s.


JOANNE: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

ED: Welcome to BackStory, I’m Ed Ayers.

JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: If you’re new to the show, we’ll tell you a bit about BackStory. Joanne, Brian, and I are all historians. And every week, we dive into a story in the news, and we look at that topic across American history. So Brian, Joanne, let’s begin today’s show by heading to an island in the San Francisco Bay in 1917. A ship pulls into the dock, and it’s full of immigrants, including young women traveling from Japan. They’ve come thousands of miles to meet their husbands in America.


JUDY YOUNG: They would have the pictures of their husbands in their hands.

ED: This is historian Judy Young.

JUDY YOUNG: They would be peering across the waters and trying to find their husbands, and so you could say that that would be the first glimpse they might have of their husbands.

JOANNE: Wait a minute. What do you mean first glimpse?

ED: Yeah, that’s really the first time they’re laying eyes on the men they were going to be married to. When they finally get a chance to see those men up close, it’s in a drafty immigration station.

JUDY YOUNG: It’s not until the interrogation, when the Board of Special Inquiry brings the two of them together into an interview room that they actually do see each other for the first time.

BRIAN: Not the most romantic of locations. So I’m guessing these are arranged marriages, Ed.

ED: Can’t put anything past you, can we, Brian. That was common practice in Japan at the time. But it became something new in the United States. These women were called picture brides.

JUDY YOUNG: This was the traditional way of getting married that they kind of adapted to the situation for Japanese men in America by doing proxy marriages, where the parents would still look for a good bride, a wife for their son in America, but they don’t need the son to come back to Japan to seal the deal. They could have it done in proxy and just enter the woman’s name in the registry and make that legal. And after the woman is entered into the registry, she is obligated to stay in Japan and live with the in-laws for at least six months.

ED: I wonder what the marriage rate in the United States would be today if people had to live with their in-laws six months before they got married. We would see the numbers plummet, I imagine.

JUDY YOUNG: Yeah, and one of the reasons that the picture brides that were willing to marry someone in America is they can get away from living with the in-laws. That was a reason. And then they would have the bride and groom exchange photos and letters, so they could correspond like pen pals.

JOANNE: Well, that’s really interesting, Ed. I mean on the one hand, you’ve got this new kind of courtship. But it’s also part of an old story of immigrants adapting their traditions to the United States.

ED: That’s right, Joanne. Picture brides are a creative response to immigration restrictions.

JOANNE: And that is definitely something that has been in the headlines a lot lately.


DONALD TRUMP: We’re going have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting.

MALE SPEAKER: The order puts a 120 day hold on all refugees settling in the US.

MALE SPEAKER: This executive order was mean-spirited, un-American.

MALE SPEAKER: Nearly half of Americans said that they supported tougher immigration restrictions.

JOANNE: Trump’s recent executive order isn’t the first time that the United States has blocked immigrants from specific countries or even entire regions. So today’s show is going to be the first of two episodes on American reactions to immigration.

BRIAN: It goes to a longstanding tension at the heart of our national identity that so many Americans are descendants of immigrants, yet so many of those Americans are suspicious of immigrants.

JOANNE: We’re going to look at some of the immigrant groups that have been targeted, from the French of the 1790s, to Italians, Slavs, and Asian immigrants in the 19th and 20th century. We’re also going to look at some lesser known immigration bans, against people with flat feet, for example, or insufficient facial hair.

ED: But first, let’s return to these Japanese picture brides. They managed to exploit, in surprising ways, a loophole in our immigration laws between 1908 and 1920.

BRIAN: So Ed, I know that we restricted some Asian immigration. But could you refresh my memory on how that actually worked?

ED: Yes, Brian, the white backlash to Asian immigration began almost as soon as Chinese laborers started arriving on the West Coast. This was in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush.

JUDY YOUNG: As long as their labor was needed, they were welcomed. But soon after the Gold Rush petered out, and particularly in 1870s when economic depression set in California and the West Coast. So they were seen as causing unemployment and taking jobs away. And they also were discouraged from settling and integrating into the larger American society.

ED: Asian immigrants faced much more severe restrictions than immigrants from Europe. People from Asia couldn’t become naturalized citizens or even own land in many states. Other laws prohibited marriage between Asian men and white women. And immigration restrictions made it very hard for any Asian woman to come to the United States.

JOANNE: OK, Ed, so I’m guessing this is going to bring us right back to those Japanese picture brides?

ED: You’re very insightful, Joanne. In 1907, the Japanese government negotiated a special deal with President Teddy Roosevelt.

JUDY YOUNG: They were seen as a rising superpower, and they actually had the diplomatic respect of the United States government.

ED: Now the US wanted to end Japanese immigration, but the White House didn’t want to offend the Japanese government. So Roosevelt came up with this non-binding deal known as the Gentleman’s Agreement.

JUDY YOUNG: And it agreed to stop the immigration of Japanese laborers to the United States. But Japanese laborers in the United States can still send for their wives and children. So they took advantage of that loophole to get their women to come to the United States.

ED: Now marrying someone you’ve never even laid eyes on sounds like a pretty big gamble to us today, so I asked historian Judy Young what was the rate of success for these couples.

JUDY YOUNG: I think about 80%. There were stories of women not being happy with their husbands because they had lied about their ages or that lied about their economic status in America. The women had not expected to live in segregated communities and work as hard as they did, as homemakers as well as farm workers, and raising families.

And I mean all of these marriages are not based on love and courting romance the way that American marriages were at this time. They would all say that love comes later, and sometimes not at all. But once you are married and you have children and you’re a family, it’s almost like a obligation to follow through and make it work. Divorce was not an option for this generation.

ED: And how many people?

JUDY YOUNG: Well, a total of 20,000 women were able to come as picture brides and join their husbands in America during this period. Now the government was always worried and concerned that women coming this way as picture brides that they were prostitutes or they will become laborers and help the husbands with their businesses. And there was this propaganda going around in the Sacramento and San Francisco newspapers that the picture bride practice was barbaric and un-American and undemocratic, that there’s this real threat that more people, more Japanese people and a new generation of citizens, would be a threat to white racial purity. So I think for all these reasons they began to find a way to stop this practice.

ED: It’s not because it failed in any way. It was because it was succeeding too well in some ways

JUDY YOUNG: Yes, because as families and communities settling and developing in America was the threat, Congress finally signs a Ladies Agreement in 1920, where Japan agrees to stop letting women immigrate to US as picture brides. So after 1920, men could no longer resort to this practice.

But in 1924, they passed an Immigration Act that barred immigration of aliens ineligible to citizenship. And who are the aliens ineligible to citizenship? The Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and that’s how they stopped Japanese immigration totally. And that was in 1924.

ED: But Judy, this is an interesting story. But it doesn’t really happen for a very long time. Why does it matter? What’s the legacy of this?

JUDY YOUNG: Well, their legacy is that they form the foundation for the development of Japanese-American families and communities. They made the second generation and future generations of Japanese in America possible.

ED: Judy Young is co-author of “Angel Island, Immigrant Gateway to America.”

ED: So guys, that was a pretty heartening story of the way the Japanese families made lives for themselves in the face of all this opposition. But we know there’s more to American immigration than heartening stories. Joanne, if we could get a start at the beginning of American history. Let’s take a sort of a scan of the oscillations in American immigration policy. So what was it like at the beginning?

JOANNE: Well, in the early republic, I mean I guess I would say there’s some ambivalence about immigrants. Because on the one hand, I mean if you look at something like– surprise, I’m going to mention Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton’s report on manufacturers– you could see in there that he’s thinking about in the future there might be a more manufacturing kind of a nation. And he’s excited about the fact that Americans will be able to be working at this.

But he’s also thinking about how that will attract immigrants and give immigrants something to do. So he’s on the one hand, and not only Hamilton, are enthusiastic about bringing people in. And on the other hand, at that same moment in time, you flip that around, and they’re looking at Europe, and they’re looking in particular at France.

ED: Oh dear, not France!

JOANNE: Yes, they are looking at France. And they’re afraid of what they see. They see social upset. They see a King getting killed.

BRIAN: So you’re talking about the French Revolution, Joanne.

JOANNE: I am indeed talking about the French Revolution. So on the one hand they are excited about immigrants and on the other hand, given that it’s a brand new nation, they’re still establishing things like national character, national identity, even just the basic workings of the government. And lo and behold, there is this scary French Revolution happening, and people potentially coming from there to the United States. That’s a scary thing.

ED: Yeah, and they split all this pretty finely. You know Benjamin Franklin worries a lot about what kind of immigrants from Europe are going to be OK. And my ancestors, the Scots-Irish, he’s not so sure about. They seem to be a little bit too drawn to the fighting and to the violence.

BRIAN: That’s why sent them to Tennessee.

ED: Exactly.

JOANNE: You know, OK, this allows me to say one of my favorite goofy things. Actually, I have too many favorite goofy things.

BRIAN: That’s all right.

JOANNE: There’s someone from the time period who actually says that his impression of what America is going to become is a Macocracy, meaning everyone will be named Mac, Mac, Macintosh, MacIntire, Mac. And so he’s–

ED: He’s right, brilliantly anticipating McDonald’s. I love it. Well, it’s interesting, because of course the first kind of crisis in immigration history in the United States comes from a lot of Macs and O’s, the Irish who were coming in because of the devastation of their economy there, by the potato blight. And the United States is not really sure that it likes–

BRIAN: When was this, Ed?

ED: This was in the 1840s, 1850s. And what people worry about is that these fragile structures of government and economy that Joanne’s talking about are going to be overrun by all these people who are poor and rural. But they were also Catholic.

JOANNE: And that’s a long standing thing, right? There’s kind of an ongoing fear of Catholicism and Catholics in America, which I mean, it’s kind of quirky. My gut instinct would be that part of that must have to do with fears about loyalty. Were Americans worried about Catholics being more loyal to the Pope than to the United States? I don’t know. How do you guys suss that out?

ED: I don’t know what Brian thinks about this, but it strikes me that that’s the long running continuity in all this, is that there is some locus of loyalty that’s not America. If it’s not the Pope, it’s somebody else.

BRIAN: It goes back to the early republic, Joanne. It’s about independence. You can’t have citizens who are not thinking for themselves and might they be controlled by others, whether it’s radical French ideology, whether it’s the Pope. And in the 20th century, whether it’s a communist cell that’s telling them how to think.

ED: Yeah, those are really great points. And it occurs to me that what we’re always afraid of is that there’s some group that’s more coordinated, hierarchical, authoritarian than we are. The very thing we love about ourselves, that there’s nobody in charge, is also what freaks us out. There’s nobody in charge.


BRIAN: Joanne and Ed, looking at this from a 20th century vantage point, maybe even 21st century, what strikes me is how little the national government had to do with anything. I mean the national government didn’t stop anybody from coming in as far as I can tell.

ED: But there’s another case that driving through all of this is a huge demand, need, for labor in large parts of the country. Not only is the economy growing, but the continent itself is growing. And so whether it’s the West and the Chinese, or it’s the East Coast and the immigrants from Europe coming in, working in factories, there’s a great need everywhere except the American South, where there’s this great surplus of labor, of people who’ve been held in slavery. So as you think about sort of the drivers of American immigration policy, economics is always a key part of it.

BRIAN: And big business consistently throughout American history has been in favor of the free immigration of labor to basically create a larger labor supply and drive down the price of labor.

ED: They’re in favor of it until they’re not. And you think about the railroads, the first big business are in favor of Chinese immigrants until suddenly, no, they’re not.

BRIAN: Until they don’t need the labor. That’s exactly right.

JOANNE: Well, not only do they not need it, but because they’ve gotten it, now it’s scary and intimidating.

BRIAN: And we know when we fast forward the film, we’re soon going to have draconian restrictions in 1924 that really cuts down significantly all immigration, pretty much limits it to a trickle.

ED: Brian, you talked before about labor, after the labor needs of World War I have come and gone, after the Red Scare in which they are worried about Bolsheviks coming into the country have kind of settled down. They said, listen, this is out of control. Here’s what we’re going to do. Let’s pass a new law saying that the new immigrants can only represent 2% of the immigrant groups that are already in the country.

BRIAN: And guess what? Most of them happen to come from Western Europe.

ED: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Just funny how that math worked out like that. And this is striking when we think about the rich ethnic history of much of the United States. The people they were trying to keep out were the Italians, people from Southern and Eastern Europe, and also trying to keep out Jews. So 1924, and then for a pretty long time there, that is the status quo.


BRIAN: All right, Ed, Joanne, I’m going to pivot here. And I’m turning on the flag blower. My dad used to bring me to Rotary meetings when I was growing up.

And not only was there an American flag, and everybody said the Pledge of Allegiance, but there was a flag blower. It was a machine that made the red, white, and blue wave in the breeze while we said that. I’m not– how could one make this up, right?

And you may make fun of me, but when I think of all the immigrants that have come to the United States and have successfully assimilated and have pushed back with new ideas and new forms of labor and even organizing labor, I get teary eyed. I’m really quite moved that we are a nation, for all our problems, that has successfully integrated so many of these immigrants over such a long period of time.

JOANNE: I think that’s true. And I agree with what you just said. And I feel the same way. But the idea of setting up a blower, so that you could have the flag look nice.

It’s so evocative of what we’re talking about here, which is this is what we want it to look like. This is the beacon. This is what it means. But then when you get to the reality of it, it’s not the pretty flag with the blower. It’s a lot more complicated.

But we like the way it looks. We like to think of ourselves that way. It’s so much more complicated when you get beyond that blowing flag.

ED: Reminds me of that ad they had at the Super Bowl recently, in which 84 Lumber for some reason used enormous investment in an ad to show a woman and her little girl apparently coming into the United States illegally, but the little girl picking up scraps all along the way, with which she makes an American flag. You know, I thought that I could not be moved by a Super Bowl ad. But in fact, I was.

JOANNE: But did you go online and see the end of it?

ED: No.

JOANNE: I did.

ED: What happened?

JOANNE: Because I thought, wow, that was really moving. They get up to this wall. And they’re standing there and she’s got the little flag and you think, oh, no, they’re not going to be able to get through.

And they sort of walk a little ways, and there’s a door in the wall. And the door opens and the light kind of streams through, and the mother and daughter sort of hold hands and head off into the sunlight. It was moving and kind of gripping and sort of made me very sad. And then it had that sort of amazingly sort of–

ED: Saccharin?

JOANNE: Yeah, ascending into the heavens kind of, and America opened its doors and let us in. So it was like the moment, but it went right back to the blowing flag.

ED: Well, I was going to say. It makes the analogy in real time. And that you were just making. So we like our flag to be beautiful and blowing in the wind, artificial or otherwise.

We know this is the best of America. We know that we’re the country that has been the Welcome to the World. We also know that sometimes we don’t rise to that standard, and we succumb to our own worst instincts.

We’ve been talking about how immigration restrictions have grown over time. It reminded me of an interview I did a couple of years ago about another type of immigration ban that was in place for more than a century. In 1882, a new federal immigration law barred anyone who was, as the law said, a convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge. And that list of exclusions included children and adults with any number of physical disabilities or perceived defects.

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: The list would include varicose veins, flat feet, hearing impairment, vision impairments, short stature, poor physique.

ED: This is University of Iowa historian Douglas Baynton. He says it’s hard to tell exactly how many immigrants with disabilities were kept out of the US. For one thing, discrimination didn’t begin at Ellis Island.

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: Because the shipping companies did their own inspections, because if they brought an immigrant over who was rejected, they would have to pay a fine for that person and they’d have to bring them back at no charge. The ticket sellers, ticket agents who are spread all over Europe also did their own inspections. These were non-medical people, but they would refuse to sell tickets to people who they thought would be excluded because they would be penalized by the shipping companies.

ED: What this suggests to me is that people with really debilitating disabilities might not have made it this far.

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: Oh, that’s right. Well, they wouldn’t have gotten through the initial screens. And also if they had a mobility impairment, they wouldn’t have been able to get on the ship in the first place.

ED: Right, right. So can you give me an example of what this process actually looked like in practice? You know these officials deciding sort of on the spur of the moment that somebody was defective.

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: There was an Armenian Turk in 1895 by the name of Donabet Mousekian, who was diagnosed as suffering from feminism. That was the term that was used on his medical certificate. And it referred to a lack of male sexual organs or underdeveloped organs as a result of what we now know to be a hormonal deficiency.

ED: How would they– How would they know that? It must have been from a facial trait?


ED: Because I know from reading your article that basically people are walking by and when they see somebody who seems defective, they write an L on their back. Is that right?

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: Right, there was a whole code for different kinds of defects. So X for mental defect, L for lame. So the first inspection was really just a snapshot diagnosis as the immigrants streamed past the inspectors. And they would pull some people out, chalk on their back, and then give them a closer inspection.

So with Mousekian, his hearing was extraordinarily brief. It was as if the board that was examining him was very uncomfortable. In this case, one of them said I move to exclude. Is likely to become a public charge. Second panel member said, I second the motion. And third said he is excluded. And that was the entire hearing.

But he appealed to Washington, which all immigrants had a right to do. And he wrote in his appeal that he had always supported himself. He was a photographer, a weaver and dyer of rugs, and a cook, had worked at all of these. And he wrote in his letter, I am not ill and have no contagious disease. This is not my fault. It has come from God and my mother. What harm can I do by being deprived of male organs?

When he left, he was fleeing the violent oppression of Armenians in Turkey and had been made to renounce his citizenship when he left. So he explained this in his letter. And he said, better that you should kill me now than send me back. And the Armenian genocide took place just a few years after he was sent back.

ED: So much of this focused around not being able to find work. What kind of evidence would they have of that? I mean, was that actually true, you think?

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: That’s the thing. There is a widespread assumption that a disability means being incapable of working. So in the case of Mousekian, there really seems to be no reason to assume he wouldn’t be able to find work. But there was the immigration service memo that explained why they should not be admitted, which was that their abnormality becomes known to their fellow workers who mock them and taunt them, which impedes the work at hand. And so employers know this and are unlikely to hire them.

ED: So it’s for their own good in many ways.

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: Well, basically he was saying that we have to discriminate against them now, because they’re likely to encounter discrimination later.

ED: So you say that these restrictions grew over time. Does that mean that they grew increasingly accepted? I mean, was there a sort of turn against people with disabilities at the beginning of the 20th century or was this just a sort of a more bureaucratic momentum that built?

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: Well, I think there are a lot of different factors. One of them is the standardization of society in the Industrial Age. The term normal comes into common use near the end of the 19th century. And it becomes a very powerful concept.

People used to talk about human nature, and then it shifted around the turn of the 20th century to a concern with what is normal– counting people, measuring people, seeing what the bell curve shows us about what are normal characteristics. And it’s tied in with a lot of changes. The growth of cities, industrialization, where not only do you need standardized parts and replaceable parts, but standardized and replaceable human beings. Workers, people with disabilities don’t fit as a cog in that larger machine.

ED: So how long were these laws on the books? I mean you say they sort of peaked in the early 20th century. Then what happened?

DOUGLAS BAYNTON: The immigration laws do not take out the language having to do with specific disabilities or defects that are excludable until the 1990 Act. And still today, we exclude people who are likely to become a public charge. And that’s still a means of keeping people out with disabilities. And so it still goes on.

Douglas Baynton is a historian at the University of Iowa and the author of “Defectives in the Land– Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics.” We’ll bring you the second installment in our series on immigration restrictions next month.

JOANNE: Well, that’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us a BackStoryRadio.org. Or send an email to BackStory@Virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

BackStory Radio and feel free to review the new show in the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be stranger.

This episode of “BackStory” was produced by Andrew Parsons, Bridget McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our Technical Director. Diana Williams is our Digital Editor. And Joey Thompson is our Researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Greg, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach.

Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn Other music in this episode came from Podington Bear and Ketsa. Special thanks this week to Cathy Paice and to the studios at the Johns Hopkins University.

“BackStory” is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by The Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts and humanities, and the environment, and The History Channel, history made every day.

Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert “BackStory” Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.